Place and setting on a warming planet
Two weeks before the global climate strike, the New York Public Library held its first “Live from the NYPL” session of the season, a conversation between two writers who have grappled with climate change in fiction and fact. They are Amitav Ghosh, whose latest novel, Gun Island (John Murray), brings together California wildfires, Venetian-lagoon tornadoes and myth and coincidence; and Nathaniel Rich, whose most recent book, Losing Earth: The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change (Picador), began as a piece for the magazine of The New York Times.
On the video below, their conversation begins about 14 minutes in. Just before the half-hour mark, they turn to the question of place and setting, and Ghosh says that it’s impossible, in our world, to tackle it as a 19th-century novelist would have done.
“For one thing, the settings have completely changed. The populations have changed, the geographies have changed. And most of all, we live at a time when, really, it’s not just people moving; we also know that entire ecosystems are moving. And we know most of all that all these changes are happening because of extended global impact. So any attempt that we have today to approach these issues has to dispense with the 19th-century idea of the setting.
“I really feel that John Steinbeck was the great climate novelist avant la lettre … The Grapes of Wrath, the first chapter of it, is just such a magnificent riff on climate… if today you had to be Steinbeck writing about the same sort of phenomenon — and in a way I am writing about the same kind of phenomenon — you couldn’t do it using the Oklahoma dialect, as Steinbeck did. You would have to use Spanish.
“So already, then, you see this deep fracture entering into our literary universe. How do you deal with this… what we might call an Anthropocene of language, which is not the stable, monolingual reality of the past?”